Researcher searching for bioterrorism vaccine

By Daniel Pagan

A University of Calgary microbologist received some more help for his fight against bioterrorism. Dr. Donald Woods and his research team received a $1.7 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for vaccine research for two bacterial organisms, B. mallei and B. pseudomallei, the root causes of glanders and melioidosis. Concerned by the possibility of their use in a bioterrorist attack, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention placed both melioidosis and glanders on a list of potential agents which includes emerging infectious diseases that have a high mortality rate.

Woods said the grant represents a reward for many years of hard work. Due to the expensive nature of medical research, the grant also allows the U of C to proceed with important studies concerning candidate vaccines.

Woods started his work on melioidosis–which has a mortality rate that exceeds per cent when the lungs are infected–due to its infamous history in Southeast Asia. Glanders typically affects horses and was allegedly used during the First World War to slow transportation. It can be transferred to humans. Melioidosis is a close cousin of the glanders bacteria strain and if not treated, can result in pneumonia, septicemia and other chronic illness.

Woods explained the bacteria’s high resistance to antibiotics is precisely why they are perfect agents for bioterrorism. He pointed out that they are difficult to diagnose and treat because of their quickly evolving nature.

While studying the bacteria, Woods’ team has to take strict safety precautions such as working in a secure air filtered lab, safety clothing, all work limited to a containment lab with no live material allowed inside except personnel. Researchers have to take five-minute showers before leaving.

“Working on these diseases is no different than working with any bacterial diseases [except for] the realization that one has to be very cautious and use appropriate containment facilities to perform the work,” said Woods. “There are many difficulties in this program such as purifying vaccines antigens and them not inducing immunity against the bacteria.”

Woods’ project was submitted to the NIAID Biodefense Initiative, which supports research projects for new vaccines and medical diagnostics. The long-term goals of the initiative are to develop human vaccines to protect people from glander infection caused by B. mallei and meliodosis caused by B. pseudomallei.

With the help of new funding, Dr. Woods will be able to determine how vaccines can be attached to carrier proteins in mouses to prevent the spread of disease. He predicts a vaccine will be ready for testing in the next four years.

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